Allison Stielau: The Case of the Case for Early Modern Objects.

Allison Stielau: The Case of the Case for Early Modern Objects and Images. In: kritische berichte, [Theme of the issue: “Die Kunst und die Dinge. Perspektiven einer schwierigen Beziehung”], vol. 3 (2011), pp. 5-16

On 17th and 18th June 2019 the first workshop of the second round of the research group Bilderfahrzeuge took place at the Warburg Institute, London. Under the title Image/Vessel it dealt with the methodological and theoretical relation of two important topics of art historical research: image theory and thing theory. Based on the first text of the readings section of the workshop, The Case of the Case for Early Modern Objects and Images by Allison Stielau, we began with an examination of the relation between container and contained. In light of this essay and the ensuing discussion, I would like to present some central questions and reflections of the workshop.  

The etui

The essay begins with the question: “What sort of thing is the etui?” Thereby, attention is already focused on the thing question, leading to an initial answer that it is an object in which “one stores anything that should be held snugly, for protection or concealment”. It is a piece of equipment, a tool, to protect, store and move valuable objects, but it is also a framing, an excluding and including entity surrounding a centre, holding an object or a void. The object to be protected is embraced and enclosed by its specifically manufactured case. After pointing out the materiality of cases, Allison Stielau explains that, as framing storage boxes, they need to take on the shape of the framed object and are therefore always adjusted to the content and thus subordinate to it. Their form as well as their very existence are determined by the precious contents. Thus, case and object behave like hand and glove: without the object there is no case, without the case no preservation of the object. 

Maker unknown, The Schlüsselfelder Schiff, before 1503, gilt silver and enamel. Case: wood and incised leather. (Image: Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg)

Here, one point of Stielau’s argument should be put forward: the relationship between container and contained as well as the relation between object/etui and image. An important example for Stielau is the Schlüsselfelder Schiff and its wooden case covered with decorated leather. The details of the ship are taken up by its case and carefully embraced. While the makers of both objects (ship and crate) remain unknown, the value of the object to be protected is obvious. As a container for wine, the ship is also a small sculpture made of silver with many exquisite details demonstrating the skills of its maker. The case itself is also an object of artistic craftsmanship, not only due to the fact that it takes on the shape of the ship, but also because it is beautifully decorated with botanical and geometric patterns. Thus the case, which was supposed to serve as protection and enabled the mobility of the object, is not only a functional tool, but is itself of artistic mastery. 

Nevertheless, case and object act like hand and glove, since without the object there would be no case and without the case the fine and small details of this ship could not have been preserved for more than 500 years. Nevertheless, their relationship is hierarchical: the ship alone does not refer to its crate, whereas the case serves as an index of its missing content. 

Image/Vessel

By bringing a watercolour representation of the Schlüsselfelder Schiff from the 16th century into play, which shows all the details of the object on a two-dimensional level, Stielau poses the question concerning the function of the image and compares it to the function of the etui. This pictorial representation, which was in the possession of the Hamburg goldsmith Jakob Mores, probably served as a model for a copy of the object. It contains the information that the ship functioned as a wine vessel and provides details of its size and weight. The representation therefore conceptually resembles the case: it conveys the shape and dimensions of the ship through text and image, thus referring to the absence of the object. But in contrast to the representation, which visualizes the absent through pictorial presence by showing the smallest details, the case remains opaque and is therefore an „abstract form that also presents the negative imprint of the ship“. 

Martin Schongauer, The Adoration of the Magi, 1475, engraving, Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The role of the etui has also been reflected by artists since the Renaissance by showing its function in their images, for instance by Martin Schongauer in his Adoration (1475). Based on a narrative from the New Testament, this image tells of the goldsmith’s art of the 15th century as well as of the journey of valuable objects that were transported from East to West. Similar to the different layers of a Matryoshka doll, the valuable contents (Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh) are packaged in a sophisticated silver or gold vessel, which in turn is placed in a specially made, precisely fitted case and this is then carried in a soft pouch for transport, as shown by a figure on the right hand side of the depiction. This layered model shows the protective migration of objects and goods and reveals at the same time the value of the vessels themselves, in which not only the contents are of importance. Stielau sums up that the depictions “deploy […] objects as agents in human narratives [and the] Schlüsselfelder watercolor showed how images can also act as containers for objects when they serve as archiving devices that testify to the existence of another thing”, but in addition, “by representing objects capable of being packed, the image suggests its potential to be interpreted, or unpacked.” If one accepts this it can lead to the examination of the differences between the image as a representation and the etui as a material container for an actual object.  

Haunted etuis 

The determination and categorical assignment of cases takes place according to their function as a marker for an absence, a haunting entity, whose volume is precisely defined. By focusing on the case, the perspective is shifted to an object that is usually overlooked, allowing for the examination of questions concerning the presence of the absent, to follow the traces of wandering objects, and to investigate the image as a carrier of information and ideas. But what remains if the case has to get by without its object? What does it show and what does it hide? Is it useless without its contents? The haunted case referring to its absent object seems to be surrounded by a sacred aura. Like a reliquary shrine it envelops its valuable contents, accessible only to the chosen few. Being exhibited as a witness of the past, as a secret keeper and protector, the etui gains independence. It becomes the bearer of a narrative in which the presence of the content is no longer indispensable. The container itself finally becomes the content. Hence, the empty etui “materializes the problem of mortal and historical preservation.”


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